Local news is dying. This is why you should care

With the rush to move everything online, local news is dying

We used to get a whole bunch of local newspapers: two freesheets and a slightly more serious paper that cost about 50p. Now, though, the freesheets don't pop through the letterbox any more and the paid-for paper is about as good as you'd expect from a tiny team who don't have the resources or the time they need to do their jobs. The property ads that used to pay the bills have moved online.

People selling sofas are sticking them on eBay. Car ads? eBay or Autotrader.co.uk. In the short term that's good news for us, because we can look for a house, a second-hand sofa or an old banger in seconds, and we can compare different items or go shopping at three in the morning. But in the long term it's terrible, terrible news.

Charles Arthur blogs about a typically daft example of local planning, where a town centre makeover is killing local businesses. In the old days, the local newspaper would have raised the alarm, co-ordinated a campaign and made the powers that be see sense. Now, the daft plan just goes ahead - largely because our attention is elsewhere.

As Arthur writes, quoting a commenter on another blog: "You know about the iPhone getting cut and paste, and you've got an opinion about the new Facebook UI. Now tell us how much you know what's being done with your money a mile down the road." We can tell you the names of key staff from any tech firm you can imagine. Our local MP? Er… Euro MP? Um… councillors? Ahh…

You can only care about what you know

It's not an either/or thing: knowing about the latest tech from across the pond doesn't mean you don't care about what's happening in your town. But you can only care about things you know about. We could fill an entire website listing the dumb decisions our local worthies have made over the last few years, and in each case we only found out about them after they'd already been carved in stone.

As the rush to go online leaves local newspapers understaffed or simply puts them under, who's going to tell you what's going on? Who's investigating the dodgy deals, conflicts of interest, corruption and flat-out insanity that so often occurs in local government? They've got our money.

Who's ensuring they spend it wisely? Who's watching racist, corrupt or plain stupid officials to ensure that they aren't using anti-terror powers against ordinary residents, or fiddling with figures to hide incompetence, or investing the Council Tax in bad banks?

Blogs? Not in our neck of the woods. They're not sitting in meetings, wading through minutes or filing Freedom of Information requests; their readers are scattered far and wide, so they may not have any local visitors at all; and what they do is often good, but it's reactive, not proactive.

They're responding to stories others have found and more often than not, they're going after national, not local, issues. Facebook groups, petitions and the various other ways people campaign about things online? Typically single-issue and completely ineffective.

What's worrying is that as we lose local newspapers - and we are losing them - we're losing something important: the ability to make local officials accountable for their actions. That used to be local newspapers' job. Now they're dying, who's going to take their place?

Because while iPhones and UIs are interesting, the things that will really change your life are being decided in a building an awful lot closer to home.


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Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall (Twitter) has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR.